Politics

Texas’ Governor Wants You to Forget About Uvalde

A man in a wheelchair in front of a memorial of candles and flowers outside the elementary school.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott visits a makeshift memorial outside of Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 29. Chandan Khanna/AFP via Getty Images

The news cycle moves so quickly that we too often forget the things we should remember. Like the shooting in a Uvalde school that killed 19 children and two of their teachers. It was a little more than one month ago. We spoke with someone who will never forget, Texas state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, who serves the citizens of Uvalde. He’s spent much of the past month looking for answers. Gutierrez came to the city the night of May 24. And he’s stayed there for most of the time since, to be there for his constituents—to listen and to give them what support he can. Some of the people who lost their children blame law enforcement—for not doing enough, fast enough, to save their kids. The state senator has been looking for answers about law enforcement’s failings that day. But he’s also keeping the pressure on, knowing that the clock is ticking for Texas to take real action.

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On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Gutierrez about what he’s doing to make sure no one forgets what happened on May 24 in Uvalde. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Mary C. Curtis: I can’t help but wonder, tempting as it is to harp on law enforcement’s failures—and they certainly are quite a few—if that might be missing the point, which is that an 18-year-old was able to buy an assault weapon and use it to kill people. One commentator put it like this: “Demanding that police respond more swiftly and courageously once the slaughter of school children has already begun is itself the mark of a broken society, which no longer seems able to ask that we prevent such killings in the first place.” What do you think?

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Roland Gutierrez: I think that there is everything to that statement. Let’s be clear: We spent two hours in a committee hearing talking about a door that was malfunctioning. This isn’t about doors. It’s not about metal detectors. It’s not about putting fencing all around our schools and limiting to one door, as our lieutenant governor would have, or even ballistic shields. This is about militarized weaponry in the hands of 18- to 21-year-olds. This is about not having red flags laws in Texas and a governor who refuses to employ them. This is about not having waiting periods.

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Look, I’m a realist. I live in Texas, and I even own guns myself. I don’t own these types of guns. But I know my constituents and I know what my constituents in West Texas like and what they want. At the end of the day, even my Republican constituents are telling me I’m right on raising the age limit to 21. It’s the simplest thing we can do. Greg Abbott could go in there, call a special session right now, and insist on one change, and that’s an age limit. Then he can drop the microphone and leave the building. He’d be the star in this state. But instead, he chooses to sell his soul because he cares more about the NRA and their money than he does about innocent children in Uvalde, Texas.

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You gave a very emotional speech to the Senate Special Committee to Protect All Texans about what you witnessed in Uvalde. What were you hoping to accomplish? Because you note that you’re not trying to tell them to vote in a certain way. So what did you hope people would take away from what you shared about that experience?

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It sounds harsh, but I wanted them to feel the horror, the pain, and the suffering. Emmett Till’s mother, she said, Leave his casket open. She wanted the world to see what they had done to her little boy. I saw seven little girls in coffins. I wanted people to understand the horror of what these families have had to deal with.

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Because of the way Texas politics works, not only is the Legislature not in session, but lawmakers won’t return to the capital until January of 2023. So Gov. Greg Abbott has called for the formation of a special legislative committee to examine and develop legislative recommendations. Do these seem like useful exercises to you?

No. We’ve been down there before, with Santa Fe. With Sutherland Springs. With El Paso. With Midland–Odessa. This is simply another ruse, another attempt to bamboozle the Republic of Texas, to stall. Until the media goes away, until these stories go away, until people are talking about something else. He has done nothing. Massacre after massacre, this man has done absolutely nothing. And a special committee is absolutely doing nothing. Until we get in there on a date-certain 30-day legislative session, pursuant to our constitution, then nothing can be done.

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What are you hoping that such a special session could accomplish and achieve?

We’ll do anything. A red flag law, a background check law, a magazine capacity law. What I really would like to see is the age limit increase to 21, like they did in Florida. Do anything. Do something. Greg Abbott likes to talk about evil. The only evil that exists in this state is having elected leaders, people in power, that have a problem staring them straight in the face and doing absolutely nothing about it.

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I wonder what would be on your legislative wish list versus what you think is a realistic agenda in the state of Texas that you know so well?

Well, I’m sure they’ll come back in January and we’ll talk about doors and windows and locks and “school hardening.” And yet again, we’ll spend next to no money on it. Look, we spend $4 billion on a failed border security plan, and they spent $100 million on school hardening in 2019. Look where that got us. They failed these kids. I’m sure there’ll be some of that. I’m sure there’ll be some mental health money. I doubt that Greg Abbott will avail himself of the red flag incentives that are going through Congress at this time. But what I will be pushing for at a bare minimum, what I’ll be yelling from the rafters is to change the age limit to the age of 21, and I will find any bill I can to make an amendment to do that.

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But we also have the federal gun deal. What do you make of that particular proposal?

Listen, we are in the desert, and we are dying of thirst. So I suppose that something is something. But that said, it comes with too many options for governors or people in power to say no to, like the red flag incentive piece. If Abbott doesn’t avail the state of those benefits, then we’re left without anything. We’re left without red flags. We’ve got a greater background check process, which is fine. But we don’t even touch the age limit requirement. And I don’t understand why, when the vast majority of Americans say to raise the age limit to 21.

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Now, you’ve said in a recent interview that the South Texas school district has talked about applying for a federal grant program called Project SERV, the School Emergency Response to Violence, to raze Robb Elementary. What are the parents in Uvalde saying about the future of the building and what needs to be done?

I haven’t heard from one single parent that wants to send their school kids there. The president was very helpful. His staff in the White House was very helpful in calling me directly to figure out how we can help do that. I put them in contact with the school superintendent. The school superintendent and I have been collaborating. We’re going to keep moving forward to try to get to that end, but there’s not one single parent that wants to send their kids into that building.

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The last thing on my mind is just something you alluded to earlier—how short people’s attention spans are. You talked about how people are delaying things until it goes away. How fast the news cycle is. Does any part of you worry that by the time legislators get back to Austin, whether for special session or new legislative term, most Texans will have moved on and the pressure will be off.

The first Saturday after the shooting, I was fueling up my car early in the morning. I saw a young couple putting ice in an ice chest, filling up their car with gas, presumably going to the lake or wherever they were going. I couldn’t understand why this young couple in San Antonio weren’t feeling my grief and my pain. I couldn’t understand why they had forgotten what happened just three short days ago in a town 90 miles away. And the fact is that most of the world just kind of moves on. People have their own issues, their own problems to contend with. All I can do for myself is figure a way to talk to people, where we keep reminding them. Because you’re right, as soon as the dust settles—and it’s settling—most people will move on. And I feel most people already have. So maybe all I can do is yell and scream and shame people. Maybe that’s all that’s left of my career. I don’t know.

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How do you keep people tuned in? Because every week there seems to be a new tragedy. Uvalde followed Buffalo and people stopped talking about that.

For my part, I want people to organize, not to vote or anything like that—although that’s something that I imagine will come in time. But for my part, I want them to tell their story. I can’t tell it for them as well as they can, when they’re ready. They need to be advocates for themselves. They need to be advocates for their children. They need to be advocates for the parents across Texas. I try to tell those folks that we’re going to get through this. But I also ask them to do the hardest thing possible, which is to talk about this, when they’re ready. Families that lost children are going to deal with this for the rest of their lives. Imagine all of those hopes and dreams and aspirations that they had for their children and the hopes and dreams and aspirations that those little kids had for themselves, even just to simply enjoy a summer vacation that was just about to happen. All of that in an instant is gone because we in power couldn’t figure it out.

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